State superintendent opposes renewal for East St. Louis charter school

News-DemocratJanuary 11, 2014 

— State Board of Education Superintendent Christopher Koch plans to recommend that the state not renew the charter for Tomorrow's Builders YouthBuild Charter School in East St. Louis.

Koch penned a letter dated Dec. 17, in which he announced his intentions at the upcoming board meeting and cited a number of reasons for his intended recommendation. The News-Democrat obtained a copy of the letter through a Freedom of Information request.

Koch's reasons for not wanting the charter to continue to operate included:

* The administration's failure to provide evidence that the terms of the charter, as proposed, are economically sound.

* Failure to articulate a sound education plan to drive successful student outcomes.

* Failure to comply with teacher qualification requirements applicable to all charter schools.

* Failure to maintain accurate records of student enrollment and attendance.

* Failure to comply with federal and state laws and regulations applicable to students with disabilities.

* Repeated violations of the conditions, standards and procedures set forth in the charter agreement and accountability plan.

Koch's letter is addressed to Arthur Culver, superintendent of East St. Louis School District 189, and Vickie Kimmel Forby, executive director of the charter school.

Forby said she has no idea why Koch is making the recommendation to close the charter school. She said students test scores have improved and student behavior issues have abated; she maintains the school is fiscally sound.

Forby said the allegations put forth as reasons to not renew the charter "are unequivocally false." She said the school has passed repeated financial audits, and the school's curriculum, which was submitted to the state and approved, is "almost identical" to a similar charter school elsewhere in the state.

Forby said a number of teachers at the school worked on a special education plan for three months and it was approved by the state.

"All of our teachers are Illinois certified and licensed by the state. All are highly qualified," she said.

Forby plans to turn all of the teachers' certifications back in to the state board for review, she said.

Forby said she is very concerned that the current students and others who might have been considering the charter school as an alternative to regular school might return to the street corners . She said many of the graduates have gone on to trade schools and are working as a result of the training they received from the charter school. Some are just working, she said. Forby said the bottom lineis many of them are leading productive lives.

A decade of service

The East St. Louis charter school, located at 1798 Summit Ave. in the old A.M. Jackson school building, has been in operation since 2002. It is a public charter school authorized by East St. Louis School District 189 and operated by Emerson Park Development Corp.

The school operates on a budget of about $800,000 a year with funding that comes from the Illinois State Board of Education and District 189. This past quarter there were 108 students enrolled.

Since it opened, the charter has been renewed twice for fewer than five years each time.

Koch's letter said that the charter's past renewals were "conditioned on certain requirements for corrective action."

"The Illinois State Board of Education is required to certify that any new charter agreement, charter renewal agreement, or material modification to a charter agreement is consistent with the provisions of the Illinois Charter Schools Law before it may go into effect," Koch said in his letter.

This is to "serve as official notification that at the Jan. 22-23 meeting of the State Board, I will recommend that the board deny certification of the Tomorrow's Builders YouthBuild Charter School renewal proposal and order that the charter school close at the end of the 2013-14 school year."

After what Koch termed "extensive review of the renewal materials, historical materials and student outcome information collected by the State Board of Illinois public schools," his staff has determined that the charter renewal agreement and proposal are not compliant with the requirements of the Charter Law.

Forby said not only has the staff at the charter school worked hard, but they have delivered on their obligations and the students' achievement shows that.

She said that the education plan at the school is viable and has been approved multiple times by District 189 and by the State Board in connection with the charter program in Bloomington and many national YouthBuild charter schools.

Forby also maintains that over the past decade the school has kept accurate attendance records.

"Any deficiencies that we have are minor and are directly related to District 189's failure to provide student records when the students enroll in Tomorrow's Builders YouthBuild Charter School," Forby said.

She said the district is supposed to provide special education services to the charter school and receives funding from the state, but has repeatedly failed to provide the special-ed teachers it promised.

Forby also denied there have been violations as raised in Koch's letter, and said there has been no communication from District 189 about these alleged problems.

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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